Mass Effect Review

Many apologies to those of you who have been patiently eyeing the Reviews box on the left hand side and wondering if the review for Mass Effect really was "coming soon". I'm happy to say I've played the game thoroughly enough (three times) to give a proper review. So without further ado, here it is:

Sound (4/5)
The sound effects used in this game are well suited to the sci-fi genre and used appropriately. The environmental ambience that you hear on different planets (e.g. howling wind on a frigid, icy world) helps with the immersion. The only reason it didn't get a perfect score is that occasionally there'd be sound glitches occurring that caused the volume levels of some sounds to drown out others (e.g. the engine hum of the Mako, the Armoured Personnel Carrier used to explore planets, can sometimes spike in volume so loud that you won't hear anything else). These were more annoying than debilitating problems since a quick reload of the game tended to fix the issue.

Voice acting is performed by professional voice actors and as a result is top notch with even some famous actors joining the fray, such as Lance Henriksen(Aliens, Millenium) as Admiral of the Human Navy, Seth Green(Austin Powers, Family Guy, Robot Chicken) as your ship's pilot and Marina Sirtis(Star Trek:TNG), as the evil right-hand to the game's antagonist.

Music (5/5)
For a computer game, Mass Effect has a soundtrack that is up there with the greatest and we wouldn't expect any less from Jack Wall, a veteran game composer (Jade Empire, Splinter Cell, Myst). With the help of Sam Hulick, Richard Jacques and David Kates, the soundtrack helps the player feel like (s)he's starring in some epic 80s sci-fi adventure (Wall was heavily inspired by the music of John Williams and Blade Runner in creating this soundtrack, and you can tell). Special mention must go to the excellent credits song by Canadian alternative group "The Faunts" which fits perfectly with the game's theme and the rest of the soundtrack.

Although the soundtrack only rated above average in my soundtrack review, one must keep in mind that the review was considering the soundtrack as a standalone piece of work. When listened in the game though, it is nothing short of sensational.

Graphics (4/5)
For a role-playing game, the graphics are the best we've seen in a Bioware game yet and is up there with the graphics seen in "The Witcher" and "Oblivion" (the game uses a modified Unreal 3 engine). Characters now have more realistic shadows, lighting is used to great effect and the faces of characters and aliens are well done. You can even customise your character's facial features "Sims 2" style.

However, there are occasional glitches that do break the immersion: Textures on the clothing for your characters even on High settings seem a little blocky, sometimes shadows appear to be generated incorrectly (which I notice occurs on other games, including "Battlefield 2") and the lens flare effect often clips and can be seen in the foreground rather than the background (it seems quite silly when a spaceship flies in front of the sun only for the lens flare to superimpose itself in front of it).

Another noticeable love-it-or-hate-it feature in Mass Effect is the Film Grain Effect. Personally, I actually like it, since the whole idea behind it is to make you feel like you're acting out a sci-fi movie - however, I can understand that it can be quite annoying to some (and it apparently increases FPS slightly too). Fortunately, there is an option to turn this off from the menu.

Character Creation Demo

Plot (5/5)
If this game was a movie, the plot would seem rather ho-hum. It's your typical space opera fare: bold adventurer in a galaxy full of aliens goes about trying to save the universe from destruction by the forces of evil. However being a sci-fi fan, I know that seeing a game (or a movie for that matter) that has this kind of storyline and executes it so well is a rarity. Not since the original "Knights of the Old Republic" has Bioware ventured into this genre and it's good to see that they have succeeded in offering a competent and adult storyline for us gamers to sink our teeth into. There are even a couple of interesting twists in the plot where you have to make life-or-death decisions, but I won't spoil the plot anymore - you'll just have to play it to find out!

Let me say from the start that overall Mass Effect is a fun game to play from start to finish, at least as far as the main plot is concerned. The cutscenes and ethical debates (if you like that sort of thing) are choreographed well - the locations, exotic - the bits in between though can become a bit tedious.

A lot of the game (especially if you do all the side quests) will involve you scouting planets in the Mako, a futuristic APC. This vehicle is able to scale 80 degree inclines it seems which is very unrealistic but sometimes useful. Unfortunately, even though the Mako can defy the gravity most of the time, it can't all the time and some mountains steeper than 80 degrees are quite impossible to scale - so it can be quite frustrating getting to points of interest sometimes. Usually you have to resort to either (1) spending 10 minutes driving around the mountain looking for a less than 80 degree incline you can scale up or (2) spending 10 minutes perservering with the incline in front of you and having to restart the map everytime you accidentally fall in a crater.

Once you actually get inside the buildings that contain the side quest you may get the notion that each of them must be built by the same company which happens to specialise in galactic pre-fab housing: Each of the bases/mines look the same, save for some re-arranged furniture so even though the side quests give you that bit of extra XP the scenery can be dull at times.

Conversation Demo

Replayability (4/5)
Unlike previous Bioware games where they have an alignment system, in "Mass Effect" there is no real sense of good or evil. Now you just do things the honourable, by-the-book way (Paragon) or doing things the ruthless, anything goes way (Renegade). Going along either path will change the story slightly and open up different options as you progress. As usual, this system offers some replayability to the game as the decisions you make will alter the outcome of the story at every turn and ultimately decide the fate of the galaxy.

Mass Effect, like many games these days (and we probably have the Xbox360 to thank for this) has an Achievements system where achieving certain miletones (e.g. earning 1 million credits, using the pistol to get 250 kills, etc.) offers special perks the next time you play the game. This will be where Mass Effect loses a point for this section since yes it's nice to get a couple of the perks (the one that unlocks elite Spectre weapons is probably the most useful) but some of the others are quite hard to attain (I played three times and was unable to acquire even 75% of the achievements) and won't offer the benefits unless you decide to play the game again with the same characters.

Mass Effect wouldn't be a Bioware game if it didn't have romance sub-plots and you'll get two choices for each sex (one of the choices is actually common to both sexes - her race can actually mate with both sexes from other races) . As always I think the romance sub-plot is a nice touch to this genre since it helps you with the immersion even more knowing that having your character invest time in relationships within the game alters the storyline even more (and ultimately once again offers more replayability).

Even though RPGs of this nature usually are restrictive in terms of replayability, Bioware ensures that the player is offered with as much choice as possible. What I'm saying is that it's no "Oblivion", but that's like comparing apples and oranges.

Combat Demo

RPGs are often released unpolished and with several bugs, but this time it wasn't gameplay related bugs that mired the game. Mainly the UI and choice of DRM (Digital Rights Management) by EA were the big offenders.

Firstly, let's talk about the UI. The UI for the PC version of the game was done by Demiurge Studios (who were responsible for porting the game from the console version). While they've done what could be described as a functional UI, it can be a bit tedious at times and takes some getting used to. For starters, like most Bioware RPGs, pausing the game can be achieved by pressing the Spacebar so you can setup skills. Unlike previous Bioware RPGs, you actually have to hold the Spacebar down in order to do it . It can sometimes feel a bit awkward and takes some getting used to but eventually I got used to using this mechanic. This seemed obviously a legacy of pressing buttons on the side of the Xbox360 controller so I thought it was rather lazy not to alter it slightly for the PC RPG-playing audience.

Another annoyance is the conversion of items into Omni-Gel. In Mass Effect, if you ever fail decryption/hacking puzzles or need to repair things, you usually use an amount of this miracle substance called Omni-Gel. You can acquire Omni-Gel by salvaging items and usually you'd want to do this with obsolete weapons and modifications. However, there isn't any easy way to do this (as far as I can tell) except (1) click on item to salvage, (2) click on "Salvage Item", (3) Click "yes" to the warning prompt, (4) Repeat. Fine for a few items but since you're going to be collecting a lot of items in Mass Effect this can become tedious if you've got 100 items to salvage. There's usually an option to "Salvage All" when you pick up items in the first place so it's a bit bewildering to me why they don't have a similar option once you've already got the items in your inventory.

Secondly, the choice of DRM is a bit dubious and sounds like a money grab by EA. Basically you're only allowed 3 activations of the game with the new SecuROM copyright protection measure that EA uses. What is an activation you might ask? Anytime you install the game on a different computer or you reinstall on the same computer but with different hardware, this counts as an activation - not good news for those who like to upgrade their computers frequently!

Okay, you might be saying "Who cares about the DRM, that's got nothing to do with the gameplay itself so why bother altering a review's score based on that?" - well the thing is, it does in this case. For one, I've had problems running the game with SecuROM. Initially I was running the game on Windows Vista and if I decided to run the game too soon after startup (I can only assume because SecuROM hadn't performed its security check yet) the game would throw up a prompt giving an authentication error. Only after waiting for a minute or so was I able to run the game (and yes I did setup "Run as Administrator" and Win XP SP2 compatibility mode on too). Eventually I reinstalled the game on XP since I was having trouble running other games on Vista. I then was unable to play the game after an update to AVG Anti-Virus was installed. Reinstalling AVG however allowed me to play the game again - bottom line, SecuROM doesn't play nice with other applications installed on your system.

The other reason EA's choice of SecuROM would alter the rating of this game is issues of longevity. In ye olde days of computing, purchasing a game meant you usually owned it for life. You could install and play the game on a whim for the next 10 or even 20 years with a little help from DosBox or the like and not worry that you won't be able to play it. Not so with the latest SecuROM. If you upgrade your computer three times your copy of Mass Effect won't work anymore untill you contact EA tech support (which is an expensive $2.48/minute phone call or an e-mail where a reply could take weeks) and appeal to them to renew your activations. Thanks for treating legitimate buyers like pirates EA!

In terms of the usual bugs, there were a couple of instances of that - most noticeable was one battle where anytime a biotic skill was used on you, you pretty much had to reload your game and try your best to avoid them being used on you. As mentioned before though, overall there are little gameplay related bugs (although being released on Xbox360 first may have helped Bioware iron out any outstanding ones).

Galaxy Map and Mako Demo

Overall - 78%
If you're a fan of Bioware RPGs and especially if you're into sci-fi, you won't be disappointed by this most recent release if you overlook the few minor UI quirks - however, those against draconian DRMs, who like to feel that they actually own the game or tend to like a bit of variety in their side quests, may have to look elsewhere.